Peers recall timeless actor's discreet charm
The devil-may-care quality that Sean Connery portrayed with cool confidence and relaxed ease as James Bond and a few other characters appears not to have been an act. This thorough professional – as he’s classified by co-workers – can make them believe that coming in under par and a hoist at the clubhouse was more important.
“They used to say that Sean loved golf, drinking and women – in that order,” recalls screenwriter/director Tom Mankiewicz, who co-wrote “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971). “He met his wife, Micheline, at a golf tournament. She didn’t mind a cocktail, could golf and was a very pretty lady. He got all three.”
When Connery got around to making movies, many of which were huge hits, his talent, star luster and the most famous Scottish burr ever were regularly put to use to make whatever picture he was in better, according to testimony from a chorus of filmmakers.
But collaborators tend to preface answers about his working methods and style with remembrances of bonhomie.
“He taught me how to stand up straight,” said Dyan Cannon, who co-starred with Connery in “The Anderson Tapes” (1971). “He told me not to slouch. We used to go walking in New York. He was a great pal. We were never romantically linked. He makes acting look easy, and he comes from such a base of reality. He does what he does and stands on that rock.”
Fred Schepisi directed Connery in “The Russia House” (1990) between the actor’s trips to the links.
“When we were in Russia, one of the places we were in opened a three-hole course, and Sean kept rushing off to play those three-hole rounds of golf,” Schepisi said. “The best thing about working with Sean Connery is that you go out to dinner after working for a day and you get to sing musical comedy.
“He sings with great enthusiasm and energy. He and I and Roy Scheider and John Mahoney used to have dinner and sing.”
Jill St. John, who co-starred in “Diamonds Are Forever,” called him “a stand-out guy, generous as an actor and fair as a human being – very egalitarian in everything he did.”
“He was never anything less than a joy,” said Sidney Lumet. There’s a big reason Lumet, one of the cinema’s great “actors’ directors,” made more pictures with the big charmer, five, than any other director – “The Hill” (1965), “The Anderson Tapes,” “The Offence” (1973), “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) and “Family Business” (1989).
“He’s just one of the best actors there is, simple as that,” Lumet says. “With Sean, in addition to brilliant talent, there is a persona that every great star has. When Sean’s up there on the screen, it’s hard to look at anything else. To be a great star, you have to be a first-rate actor, too – you have to remember that. And on that list of great actors, Sean ranks way high.
“Cary Grant used to carry that same burden of being naturally charming and incredibly handsome and still be a consummate professional and great actor. He’s there for the picture. The only time I’ve ever seen him pissed off is when someone else wasn’t doing their job. And he’s earned that right.”
Irvin Kershner directed Connery in “A Fine Madness” (1966) and “Never Say Never Again” (1983), the one James Bond picture that was made without the participation of the Cubby Broccoli production team. Its title was based not so much on its plot as on Connery’s return to the secret agent’s tux and mattress after vowing he would never do another Bond picture.
“He’s been terrific in every single film, whether it’s a Bond, whether he just does a walk-on,” Kershner says. “He always brings truth to his role.
“He’s thoroughly prepared, always relaxed, projects character, has that wonderful voice, and he looks like Sean Connery. He’s a very physical and masculine presence. He uses his body as a part of the characterization.
“When I had him run across the Brooklyn Bridge, we did it three times, and he’s the fastest man for his size I’ve ever seen. He took lessons to do the tango with Kim Basinger on ‘Never Say Never’ so that he would be perfect. Even in an action thriller, he’s there, right there, working his best.”
There’s much more than star quality at work in a Connery performance, according to Schepisi.
“He had to dig around a lot of emotions on one scene, dig way deep and come up with a declaration of love for Michelle [Pfeiffer] on ‘Russia House,’ ” Schepisi remembers. “There was reservation there, but he knew he had to do it. There were layers of protection there that he had to push into. But he definitely wanted to do that, knew he had to, and did it.”
“I went to meet him in Las Vegas to discuss the script of ‘Diamonds Are Forever,’ ” Mankiewicz says. “At the time, I was struck about his notes on the script. They were all about the other parts and actors and nothing about him. I’ve written for a lot of big stars, and never saw one be more concerned with the other parts than he was with his own. Sean cared.”
“There’s an economy of means with this kind of actor,” Kershner says. “Sean was always interesting and interested, and he cared about everything he did. He helped make other actors better. Whatever he does, he does it wholeheartedly and finds the truth. He helped me out a couple of times.
“I was having a problem getting a performance out of an actress, and she broke down and ran off the set. Sean came over and said, ‘Let me take care of it.’ Fifteen minutes later, they came out of the dressing room and she was calm. I looked over and Sean just smiled. That’s Sean.”
The second time is a case of life imitating art that upholds all the cliches in the book about Connery.
In vino veritas
“Another time, Sean and Jean Seberg were in the whirlpool for a scene in ‘A Fine Madness,’ ” Kershner recalled. “She was supposed to be nude and had this skin-tight thing on, and Sean could see that I was frustrated – the scene really required that she be naked. He called me over, said, ‘Give me champagne and two glasses.’ We all went out for a coffee break. We came back later: Jean was absolutely mellow and nude and ready to shoot.
And he’s still Sean. Even though he turns 67 in August.
“He just gets better,” Cannon says. “It’s a joy to watch him.”
“Here’s a terrible cliche for you,” Mankiewicz says. “He’s like fine wine – he only gets better. I would have trouble even thinking it if it weren’t true. He has twice the screen presence of almost any other leading star today.”